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The closing cast credits differ in order from the opening credits, in which Kirk Douglas' name appears before the title. The title of film, which is the same as the title of Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel on which it was based, was taken from a line in the eighteenth century poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." The quotation "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," used by the character "Col. Dax" in describing "Gen. Mireau's" political manipulations, is attributed to Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English writer known for his wit and political commentary.
According to a October 27, 1935 New York Times article, Paramount Pictures initially bought the rights to Cobb's novel. Afraid of offending the French government, Paramount Pictures proposed changing the army to that of Czarist Russia. A June 29, 1956 Daily Variety article notes that director Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris purchased the rights to the novel that year. The Hollywood Reporter review adds that Cobb's novel was also the basis for a play by the same name by Sidney Howard, which opened on Broadway in New York on September 26, 1935; however, the film's screenplay was an original adaptation of the novel. The Hollywood Reporter review adds that Cobb's novel was based on a real story. Cobb became intrigued by the account of a French court-martial decision that was reversed, after which token reparation was given to each of the widows of the three innocent soldiers who had been accused of cowardice during World War I and subsequently executed to "salve a general's vanity."
In his autobiography, Douglas claimed that after he had read and approved of the script, using his influence at United Artists to ensure its production, Kubrick brought to Munich a "cheapened" version of the script in which the death sentence was commuted to temporary imprisonment, suggesting that the film be made more commercially viable. Douglas rejected Kubrick's idea and insisted that the production use the originally approved script.
The film was shot on location at the Pacaria-Filmkunst Studios near Munich, Germany. Hollywood Reporter news items add that location shooting for film took place at the Schleissheim Castle outside Munich and the Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich. A February 4, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Herb Ellis to the cast, but his appearance in the finished film has not been confirmed.
In response to the film's New York opening occurring on December 25, 1957, the New York Times reviewer noted in his review, "What a picture to open on Christmas Day!" Paths of Glory was banned in France at the time it was released. A December 31, 1958 Variety article notes that Switzerland also banned the film, accusing the film of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." According to a March 12, 1958 New York Times article, Belgian government officials only agreed to release the film after a foreword was added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers." A July 2, 1958 Variety news item notes that the French government pressured West Berlin officials to ban the film at the Berlin Film Festival as well, by threatening to pull out of the festival. According to a May 5, 1975 Variety article, France finally released the film that year, while Switzerland released the film in 1978, as noted in a July 19, 1978 Variety article.
Paths of Glory won the Silver Ribbon for Best Foreign Film from the Italian Film Critics Association in 1959. Although the film did not win any significant American awards at the time of its release, many critics lauded Kubrick's unusually stark portrait of war and Douglas' performance. Modern critics now rate the film highly. Paths of Glory marked German actress Susanne Christian's American film debut, in the only female role in the film. Christian later married Kubrick.